The Inferno of the Finance Director (Chief Financial Officer - CFO)

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Sometimes, I harbour a suspicion that Dante was a Financial Director. His famous work, "The Inferno", is an accurate description of the job.

The CFO (Chief Financial Officer) is fervently hated by the workers. He is thoroughly despised by other managers, mostly for scrutinizing their expense accounts. He is dreaded by the owners of the firm because his powers that often outweigh theirs. Shareholders hold him responsible in annual meetings. When the financial results are good they are attributed to the talented Chief Executive Officer (CEO). When they are bad the Financial Director gets blamed for not enforcing budgetary discipline. It is a no-win, thankless job. Very few make it to the top. Others retire, eroded and embittered.

The job of the Financial Director is composed of 10 elements. Here is a universal job description which is common throughout the West.

Organizational Affiliation

The Chief Financial Officeris subordinated to the Chief Executive Officer, answers to him and regularly reports to him.

The CFO is in charge of:

  1. The Finance Director;
  2. The Financing Department;
  3. The Accounting Department which answers to him and regularly reports to him.

Despite the above said, the CFO can report directly to the Board of Directors through the person of the Chairman of the Board of Directors or by direct summons from the Board of Directors.

In many developing countries this would be considered treason but, in the West every function holder in the company can and regularly is summoned by the (active) Board. A grilling session then ensues: debriefing the officer and trying to spot contradictions between his testimony and others'. The structure of business firms in the USA reflects its political structure. The Board of Directors resembles Congress, the Management is the Executive (President and Administration), the shareholders are the people. The usual checks and balances are applied: the authorities are supposedly separated and the Board criticizes the Management.

The same procedures are applied: the Board can summon a worker to testify the same way that the Senate holds hearings and cross-questions workers in the administration. Lately, however, the delineation became fuzzier with managers serving on the Board or, worse, colluding with it. Ironically, Europe, where such incestuous practices were common hitherto is reforming itself with zeal (especially Britain and Germany).

Developing countries are still after the cosy, outdated European model. Boards of Directors are rubber stamps, devoid of any will to exercise their powers. They are staffed with cronies and friends and family members of the senior management and they do and decide what the General Managers tell them to do and to decide. General Managers unchecked get nvolved in colossal blunders (not to mention worse). The concept of corporate governance is alien to most firms in developing countries and companies are regarded by most general managers as milking cows fast paths to personal enrichment.

Functions of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO):

(1) To regulate, supervise and implement a timely, full and accurate set of accounting books of the firm reflecting all its activities in a manner commensurate with the relevant legislation and regulation in the territories of operation of the firm and subject to internal guidelines set from time to time by the Board of Directors of the firm.

This is somewhat difficult in developing countries. The books do not reflect reality because they are "tax driven" (i.e., intended to cheat the tax authorities out of tax revenues). Two sets of books are maintained: the real one which incorporates all the income and another one which is presented to the tax authorities. This gives the CFO an inordinate power. He is in a position to blackmail the management and the shareholders of the firm. He becomes the information junction of the firm, the only one who has access to the whole picture. If he is dishonest, he can easily enrich himself. But he cannot be honest: he has to constantly lie and he does so as a life long habit.

He (or she) develops a cognitive dissonance: I am honest with my superiors I only lie to the state.

(2) To implement continuous financial audit and control systems to monitor the performance of the firm, its flow of funds, the adherence to the budget, the expenditures, the income, the cost of sales and other budgetary items.

In developing countries, this is often confused with central planning. Financial control does not mean the waste of precious management resources on verifying petty expenses. Nor does it mean a budget which goes to such details as how many tea bags will be consumed by whom and where. Managers in developing countries still feel that they are being supervised and followed, that they have quotas to complete, that they have to act as though they are busy (even if they are, in reality, most of the time, idle). So, they engage in the old time central planning and they do it through the budget. This is wrong.

A budget in a firm is no different than the budget of the state. It has exactly the same functions. It is a statement of policy, a beacon showing the way to a more profitable future. It sets the strategic (and not the tactical) goals of the firm: new products to develop, new markets to penetrate, new management techniques to implement, possible collaborations, identification of the competition, of the relative competitive advantages. Above all, a budget must allocate the scarce resources of the firm in order to obtain a maximum impact (=efficiently). All this, unfortunately, is missing from budgets of firms in developing countries.

No less important are the control and audit mechanisms which go with the budget. Audit can be external but must be complemented internally. It is the job of the CFO to provide the management with a real time tool which informs them what is happening in the firm and where are the problematic, potential problem areas of activity and performance.

Additional functions of the CFO include:

(3) To timely, regularly and duly prepare and present to the Board of Directors financial statements and reports as required by all pertinent laws and regulations in the territories of the operations of the firm and as deemed necessary and demanded from time to time by the Board of Directors of the Firm.

The warning signs and barbed wire which separate the various organs of the Western firm (management from Board of Directors and both from the shareholders) have yet to reach developing countries. As I said: the Board in these countries is full with the cronies of the management. In many companies, the General Manager uses the Board as a way to secure the loyalty of his cronies, friends and family members by paying them hefty fees for their participation (and presumed contribution) in the meetings of the Board. The poor CFO is loyal to the management not to the firm. The firm is nothing but a vehicle for self enrichment and does not exist in the Western sense, as a separate functional entity which demands the undivided loyalty of its officers. A weak CFO is rendered a pawn in these get-rich-quick schemes a stronger one becomes a partner. In both cases, he is forced to collaborate, from time to time, with stratagems which conflict with his conscience.

It is important to emphasize that not all the businesses in developing countries are like that. In some places the situation is much better and closer to the West. But geopolitical insecurity (what will be the future of developing countries in general and my country in particular), political insecurity (will my party remain in power), corporate insecurity (will my company continue to exist in this horrible economic situation) and personal insecurity (will I continue to be the General Manager) combine to breed short-sightedness, speculative streaks, a drive to get rich while the going is good (and thus rob the company) and up to criminal tendencies.

(4) To comply with all reporting, accounting and audit requirements imposed by the capital markets or regulatory bodies of capital markets in which the securities of the firm are traded or are about to be traded or otherwise listed.

The absence of a functioning capital market in many developing countries and the inability of developing countries firms to access foreign capital markets make the life of the CFO harder and easier at the same time. Harder because there is nothing like a stock exchange listing to impose discipline, transparency and long-term, management-independent strategic thinking on a firm. Discipline and transparency require an enormous amount of investment by the financial structures of the firm: quarterly reports, audited annual financial statements, disclosure of important business developments, interaction with regulators (a tedious affair) all fall within the remit of the CFO. Why, therefore, should he welcome it?

Because discipline and transparency make the life of a CFO easier in the long run. Just think how much easier it is to maintain one set of books instead of two or to avoid conflicts with tax authorities on the one hand and your management on the other.

(5) To prepare and present for the approval of the Board of Directors an annual budget, other budgets, financial plans, business plans, feasibility studies, investment memoranda and all other financial and business documents as may be required from time to time by the Board of Directors of the firm.

The primal sin in developing countries was so called "privatization". The laws were flawed. To mix the functions of management, workers and ownership is detrimental to a firm, yet this is exactly the path that was chosen in numerous developing countries. Management takeovers and employee takeovers forced the new, impoverished, owners to rob the firm in order to pay for their shares. Thus, they were unable to infuse the firm with new capital, new expertise, or new management. Privatized companies are dying slowly.

One of the problems thus wrought was the total confusion regarding the organic structure of the firm. Boards were composed of friends and cronies of the management because the managers also owned the firm but they could be easily fired by their own workers, who were also owners and so on. These incestuous relationships introduced an incredible amount of insecurity into management ranks (see previous point).

(6) To alert the Board of Directors and to warn it regarding any irregularity, lack of compliance, lack of adherence, lacunas and problems whether actual or potential concerning the financial systems, the financial operations, the financing plans, the accounting, the audits, the budgets and any other matter of a financial nature or which could or does have a financial implication.

The CFO is absolutely aligned and identified with the management. The Board is meaningless. The concept of ownership is meaningless because everyone owns everything and there are no identifiable owners (except in a few companies). Absurdly, Communism (the common ownership of means of production) has returned in full vengeance, though in disguise, precisely because of the ostensibly most capitalist act of all, privatization.

(7) To collaborate and coordinate the activities of outside suppliers of financial services hired or contracted by the firm, including accountants, auditors, financial consultants, underwriters and brokers, the banking system and other financial venues.

Many firms in developing countries (again, not all) are interested in collusion not in consultancy. Having hired a consultant or the accountant they believe that they own him. They are bitterly disappointed and enraged when they discover that an accountant has to comply with the rules of his trade or that a financial consultant protects his reputation by refusing to collaborate with shenanigans of the management.

(8) To maintain a working relationship and to develop additional relationships with banks, financial institutions and capital markets with the aim of securing the funds necessary for the operations of the firm, the attainment of its development plans and its investments.

One of the main functions of the CFO is to establish a personal relationship with the firm's bankers. The financial institutions which pass for banks in developing countries lend money on the basis of personal acquaintance more than on the basis of analysis or rational decision making. This "old boy network" substitutes for the orderly collection of data and credit rating of borrowers. This also allows for favouritism and corruption in the banking sector. A CFO who is unable to participate in these games is deemed by the management to be "weak", "ineffective" or "no-good". The lack of non-bank financing options and the general squeeze on liquidity make matters even worse for the finance manager. He must collaborate with the skewed practices and decision making processes of the banks or perish.

(9) To fully computerize all the above activities in a combined hardware-software and communications system which integrates with the systems of other members of the group of companies.

(10) Otherwise, to initiate and engage in all manner of activities, whether financial or other, conducive to the financial health, the growth prospects and the fulfillment of investment plans of the firm to the best of his ability and with the appropriate dedication of the time and efforts required.

It is this, point 10, that occupies the working time of Western CFOs. it is their brain that is valued not their connections or cunning.

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